IT’S BEEN AN AGE

Stones CricketAs a quaint, archaic phrase inextricably bound-up with the monochrome optimism of the immediate post-war 1950s, ‘The New Elizabethan Age’ hadn’t stood the test of time until its recent revival (for obvious reasons). However, with the passing of the Queen whose name this imaginary era had rented, do we now acknowledge it was an authentic epoch in itself or do we accept whatever achievements history might like to squeeze under such a convenient umbrella label simply took place on Her Majesty’s watch even when she wasn’t watching? Will the future file this age away so that the past 70 years will retrospectively group together everything from The Beatles to Brexit, Bond to Bowie, Coronation Street to Concorde, Thunderbirds to Thatcherism, Paddington to Punk Rock, and from Tommy Steele to Tim Berners-Lee? Well, it’s probably in the hands of the generations who never lived through it, though many of us who lived through at least half of it recognise whatever creative and cultural renaissance this country coincidentally experienced whilst Brenda occupied the throne drew to a close long before she breathed her last at Balmoral.

As if to confirm this, a video that did the rounds on Twitter this week featured the contemporary ‘star’ Rita Ora labouring under the misapprehension that she’s Aretha Franklin reincarnated as a lap-dancer. The focus of said video was Ora’s attempt to turn Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’, into a sub-Beyoncé vehicle for the extended – not to say excruciating – practicing of scales. On the video, Ora evidently believes what she’s doing marks her out as an artist of some repute; the sycophantic encouragement of an audience perpetuating her fantasy is as sad as Ora’s embarrassing conviction of her own greatness, though both are victims of low expectations and an inability to question the hype. The Auto-Tuned digital trickery that fools some into believing deluded marionettes with all the soul of The Archies are worthy of bracketing along with the genuine articles who shone so brightly and so far-reaching in the first half of the New Elizabethan Age is never more exposed than in the live arena; but so desensitised are the Spotified public to the charade that convinces them they’re witness to landmark talents rather than average mediocrities, it already feels like it’s too late to extinguish the artistic inferno our Rome has long been engulfed in.

The last monarch to occupy the throne for over half-a-century, Queen Victoria, of course gave her name to her age and was witness to her own revolution as a society transformed by industry – everything from the railways to the telegraph to the telephone and the internal combustion engine – also saw imperial and civic expansion as well as the codification and professionalism of sports that are still with us; and as literacy grew, it was fitting that the written word became the prominent artistic medium. The great novelists of the 19th century stamped their art on their era as much as musicians were to do in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. But just as few of the novelists who came after Victoria were able to make quite the same immense cultural impact enjoyed by the giants of her era, the musical survivors of the 1960s and 70s remain the biggest draws on a touring circuit which would struggle to break even without the profitable presence of ‘Heritage Rock’. Perhaps future generations will discern the decline of the dominant creative form of the New Elizabethan Age and tie its end in with the death of Elizabeth herself, despite the fact it was wielding a walking stick well in advance of Her Majesty.

Those who find themselves prominent movers and shakers during an age – or at the very least find themselves reporting from the frontline of it – tend not to name their eras; as a term, the New Elizabethan Age seems to have been bandied about a lot up to and around the 1953 Coronation by that day’s media, almost imposed on the populace in the hope it would catch on. But it doesn’t recur much thereafter. When England swung a decade later, you’d be hard pushed to find Carnaby Street referenced as emblematic of the New Elizabethan Age; and I’ve no doubt the groovy guys and gals haunting that particular thoroughfare would have laughed if anyone had tried to pin such an antiquated label on their party. It probably sounded terribly ‘square’ by 1966 – just another dated and discarded piece of slang when the verbal lexicon was moving at a pace those beyond the bubble could never hope to keep up with. But if one were to return to the beginning of the Queen’s reign, perhaps the undeniable boost to weary austerity Britain of having a young woman on the throne instead of an old man tapped into something that was already slowly taking shape, something that would lead all the way from the South Bank to Soho.

Looking back, it’s clear that the confident Modernist architecture which received a nationwide window at the 1951 Festival of Britain anticipated the first flowering of something new. The sky-scraping, Dan Dare-like futurism of the Skylon and the equally Space-Age flourishes of the Royal Festival Hall pointed the way towards related edifices of the early 60s such as the BBC Television Centre and Coventry Cathedral. The consecration of the latter in 1962 was accompanied by the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, an aptly moving piece aired in the shadow of the bombed-out ruin it replaced. Britten himself was perhaps the key artistic figure of that early Elizabethan Age, being an incredibly prolific and lionised composer nonetheless saddled with the antisocial urges of his sexuality at a time when the Law had yet to embrace the spirit of change. Like Philip Larkin, whose melancholy musings on the type of sexual intercourse that characterised the country after 1963 were laced with regret at missing out, Britten belonged to a generation still coping with the seismic interruption of global conflict to their lives, an experience that would always distance them from the kids searching for shrapnel on bombsites. Those kids were the ones in whose hands the glorious bloom of the New Elizabethan Age rested, and whose efforts would be most richly rewarded.

Britten’s sublime ‘Four Sea Interludes’ – which were originally composed as instrumental passages for his celebrated opera, ‘Peter Grimes’ – were already on my looped playlist before events at Victoria and Albert’s Highland hideaway pushed the New Elizabethan Age back onto the agenda. But as a suddenly poignant soundtrack, they seem to speak to something recent developments have reignited; they are the sound of an ancient island nation instinctively looking out to sea, evoking everything from the place names on the Shipping Forecast to the dying director Derek Jarman pottering about his garden as the toxic silhouette of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station loiters on the windswept horizon. It goes without saying that the history of these islands predates the awareness of those who dictate the popular narrative, so that any ‘age’ doesn’t take place in isolation; it usually has roots stretching back decades, even centuries. Maybe the passing of Her Majesty and the age to which she gave her name has simply brought everything we’ve taken for granted back into focus and provoked a little soul-searching. But we have been here before – just not for a long time.

Whether Vaughan Williams borrowing from Thomas Tallis, Fairport Convention electrifying traditional English Folk songs, or any updated production of Shakespeare you care to mention, little in British popular culture springs from the soil without having been planted there by our forefathers. And if the crown of the kingdom happens to remain on the same head for long enough, chances are history will round up every disparate collection of creative vagabonds and name the years through which they operated after the sovereign observing (and occasionally rewarding) their efforts. In this respect, the New Elizabethan Age was for real – a unique renaissance we’ve all been beneficiaries of.

© The Editor

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NON-TOXIC MASCULINITY

ProfessionalsThere’s been a lot of understandable talk these past few days of how her late Majesty gave the British people a sense of security when every other Great British bastion proved fallible; if all else failed, the Queen was always there. Now she’s gone, who can we rely on? Well, at one time – albeit over 40 years ago – we could rely on CI5. This uniquely hardline service, sandwiched between Special Branch and MI5, was established in the tumultuous climate of the 1970s to deal with the escalating threats to the British way of life from international terrorism and increasingly sophisticated espionage. Headed by the redoubtable Major George Cowley, CI5 drew on the best men from the armed forces and the police and rode roughshod over all the legal obstacles that hindered ordinary coppers from nailing their man. CI5 had a remit that precluded niceties and this was reflected in the guys that fronted it, especially agents Bodie and Doyle. The former was an ex-military man who’d earned his spurs as a mercenary-for-hire in Africa; the latter rose to the rank of DC in the Police Force. When partnered together, Bodie and Doyle proved to be the ideal combination to cope with the challenges that threatened Britannia’s borders as the country careered towards the 80s.

Of course, CI5 only existed in the parallel universe of the cathode ray tube between 1977 and 1983. George Cowley was Gordon Jackson, Bodie was Lewis Collins, and Doyle was Martin Shaw. But from the moment that car crashed through a plate glass window and arguably one of the most energising theme tunes in TV history pumped its testosterone-fuelled beats into the living room, CI5 was for real – well, for an hour every Sunday evening, anyway. ‘The Professionals’ was a film series produced for London Weekend Television, being the brainchild of Brian Clemens, the man who had developed ‘The Avengers’ into such a memorably quirky and stylish series ten years before; having recently revived it as ‘The New Avengers’, Clemens was eager to create something less eccentric and more pertinent to the brutal 1970s and he hatched the concept of CI5 as an organisation to hang his idea around.

The success of ‘The Sweeney’ (1975-78) had shown there was an appetite for a hard-hitting police series in which the protagonists might bend the rules to nail society’s nastiest bastards; the popularity of the swearing, smoking, shagging, punching and boozing Regan & Carter was a testament to the charismatic chemistry of the two leads (John Thaw and Dennis Waterman) and was enhanced by sharp, witty writing. The show was produced by Euston Films for Thames Television, holders of ITV’s weekday franchise in the capital, and networked across all the ITV regions. The capital’s franchise holder for weekends, LWT, was desperate to come up with something similar, and Clemens’ idea sounded like just the series the company was looking for, combining the familiar police elements with the spy factor that had proven successful in the past with the likes of ‘Callan’, and adding the terrorism angle that was a reality for the British people after several years of IRA bombs causing mayhem on the mainland. The show had the potential to capture the public’s imagination in the same way ‘The Sweeney’ had, but it all depended on recruiting the right men for the job.

Gordon Jackson certainly wouldn’t have been the obvious choice to play the brash, abrasive boss of CI5; he was a household name thanks to a very different kind of character indeed – Hudson, the urbane head butler on LWT’s internationally popular period soap, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. However, Jackson proved himself to be far more versatile an actor than people gave him credit for and was as capable of barking out orders at his subordinates as any Sergeant-Major on the parade ground. After first-choice Jon Finch decided against being tied to a series, Martin Shaw, whose grumblings about his time on the show have become part of the programme’s legend, was selected for the part of ex-copper Ray Doyle; Shaw had an impressive theatre and TV CV that had been steadily building throughout the 70s. Contrary to popular belief, his distinctive bubble-haired look predated ‘The Professionals’ – it’s evident in an episode of Nigel Kneale’s anthology series, ‘Beasts’, from the year before he joined CI5 – although Shaw’s concessions to the sartorial styles of the era perhaps placed the show in a time capsule that often distracts from its enduring strengths. Initially, he was pared with Anthony Andrews as Bodie – an actor whose aristocratic bearing proved ideal for the series that made him a household name in 1981, ‘Brideshead Revisited’; but Andrews’ attributes didn’t work for Bodie and the part was recast after several days of shooting.

In stepped Lewis Collins, a lesser ‘thespian’ as far as Martin Shaw was concerned, though an actor who had also established himself on the small-screen, albeit via the vehicle of the sitcom; in Collins’s case it was the mid-70s ITV show, ‘The Cuckoo Waltz’, co-starring the beautiful Diane Keen. Called upon to play it straight, Collins nevertheless injected a level of humour into the role of Bodie that helped give the show some light relief; the banter between Bodie and Doyle – especially during extended in-car scenes when the two were screeching tyres en route to their next assignment – oozed a natural camaraderie that gave the series a great deal of its appeal. Regardless of some rather chaotic behind-the-scenes shenanigans involving lack of money, delayed shooting schedules and scripts being rewritten at the eleventh hour, ‘The Professionals’ debuted across the ITV network at the end of December 1977. Despite premiering in that television no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year, the show proved to be pretty much an overnight success. By the opening months of 1978, the benefits of being seen by all ITV viewers at the same time – a luxury denied the ITC series of the 60s and early 70s – ensured high viewing figures and instant fame for the two main leads.

‘The Professionals’ drew upon a vast, rich pool of experienced TV dramatists for its stories – men who had cut their teeth on the long-running series British television specialised in at the time – and also inherited the crew from ‘The Sweeney’ when that drew to a close. The talent behind the camera combining with the talent on-screen made for a heady mix and there followed three or four years when ‘The Professionals’ was one of the highest-rated shows on TV. It had its critics – usually hurling accusations that it was mindless, misogynistic, macho entertainment; but it was very much a show of its time, and the exhilarating action elements didn’t detract from the routinely engaging relationship at the core of its success. Yes, violence was paramount, though, unlike ‘The Sweeney’, there was no what was then referred to as ‘bad language’. The only time ‘The Professionals’ crossed a line was in an episode called ‘Klansmen’; it was pulled from transmission at the last minute and has still never been seen on terrestrial television in this country. It’s been included on every VHS and DVD release of the series, but an episode that actually addresses the issue of racism in an intelligent and honest manner stands up as a good example of how there were more dimensions to ‘The Professionals’ than merely the one.

Currently viewing the series for the first time since the 1990s, I think the old-school charm often associated with any vintage show loaded with plenty of ‘well, you couldn’t get away with that today’ moments gives it a ‘guilty pleasure’ quality; but when stood beside so much of contemporary mainstream fare, ‘The Professionals’ comes across far better than it ever did in its heyday as every little boy’s favourite undemanding series. Standards were higher on TV in the late 70s and it certainly shows in 2022. Moreover, the virtues at which Bodie and Doyle excelled were actually valued at the time rather than dismissed and denigrated as ‘toxic’; and despite changing fashions dictated by a cultural elite obsessed with what the public ought to want as opposed to what they do, these are virtues still valued by the majority, who would no doubt warm to ‘The Professionals’ all over again if given the chance.

© The Editor

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FAR BEYOND THE PALE HORIZON

Roxy 2When it comes to pop music, familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt, but repetition can block the ears to the sensation that comes with hearing something for the first time; it’s almost impossible to recapture that sensation unless enough years go by in which the ears are spared further exposure to it – and tuning in to the predictable playlists of ‘oldies’ stations is something of a hindrance to the process. One doesn’t necessarily have to have been around at the time of the record’s release to have experienced said sensation, though perhaps to fully appreciate just how groundbreaking a piece of music was in its day, it probably helps if you haven’t already heard everything that came after it. Anyway, as we continue along the path of years being characterised by how many landmark anniversaries they contain rather than whatever the current excuse for pop music happens to be doing when nobody’s listening, this year contains the usual multitude of significant dates. A record that might easily be overlooked from the anniversary list takes us back half-a-century, which is difficult to comprehend when the track in question still sounds like the future, albeit a future we never reached. I’m talking about ‘Virginia Plain’ by Roxy Music.

Released 50 years ago this month, the debut single by the intriguing Art Rock band with the unique potential to appeal to viewers of ‘Top of the Pops’ as much as ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ followed hot on the heels of Roxy Music’s first (eponymous) LP, which was climbing up to its peak position of No.10 on the albums chart. Throughout 1972, the band had been steadily building a reputation as ‘one to watch’, cannily supporting breakthrough man-of-the-moment David Bowie at the prestigious Rainbow Theatre and catching the eyes and ears of a music press eager for the Next Big Thing. The divisions between Rock and Pop were becoming wider in the early 70s, with huge acts like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd flourishing on album sales alone, not even needing the regular stimulus of a hit single to keep them in the public eye as bands in the 60s had; in the singles chart, the likes of Gary Glitter, Sweet, Slade and T. Rex were cleaning up as a consequence, and it seemed as though Glam was for the teenyboppers whilst Prog was reserved for the students – one was made for the affordable 45, the other was made for the expensive LP.

However, with the release of his ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album (and its accompanying hit single, ‘Starman’), David Bowie paved the way for a strain of Glam that elevated the genre above the primal stomp and gave it a few musical and lyrical A-levels in the process. Roxy Music were able to capitalise on this climate, producing esoteric and eclectic sounds infused with pure pop melodies and presenting the package in the kind of kitsch, exotic dress-sense that was anathema to the dominant denim-clad Hard Rock brigade. But Bryan Ferry, the band’s founder member and frontman, had come up through the art school route with an appreciation of the visual and recognition of its importance in selling a band brand. The gatefold sleeve of the band’s debut album featured glamorous Ossie Clark catwalk model Kari-Ann Muller, whilst the individual portraits of the band inside complemented the cover, especially those of Ferry himself, synthesizer scholar Brian Eno and woodwind wizard Andy McKay.

As was fairly common at the time, no tracks were lifted from the debut LP as singles, even though several of them would have performed well if they had, encapsulating as they did Roxy’s unique blend of all pop that had gone before and all that was to come. With Bryan Ferry’s distinctive vocal delivery drawing on pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll stylists such as the crooners of the 40s & 50s as well as the quintessential English camp of Noel Coward, it was plain here was a band breaking with the recent past by borrowing from the distant past; but the inclusion of Eno’s experimental soundscapes looked forward, whilst Phil Manzanera’s guitar riffs and Andy McKay’s frenetic saxophone kept the band just about moored in 1972. It was an original and exhilarating mix that, coupled with Roxy’s louche, decadent twist on Glam fashion, made them stand out like a sore sequin. The fact they were prepared to launch an assault on the singles chart reflected Bryan Ferry’s passion for the three-minute pop song, and when it eventually appeared Roxy’s debut 45 was destined to be no run-of-the-mill hit. It had to distil everything that had made the LP such a vibrant and exciting listen into a short enough timespan to earn the band the coveted ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance. And Roxy rose to the challenge in style.

A TOTP audience that was still recovering from the seismic shock of Bowie’s ‘Starman’ performance barely a month before was ill-prepared for the debut of Roxy Music on the show, which was broadcast on 24 August. Phil Manzanera’s ‘fly’ sunglasses, Brian Eno’s glistening gloves, drummer Paul Thompson dressed as a circus strongman in ‘Clockwork Orange’ mascara, Andy McKay playing the oboe with his hair tied back as though a Samurai warrior, bassist Rik Kenton passing for a gawky schoolboy, and a surreally suave Bryan Ferry in glittering eye-shadow and a sparkly jacket designed by Anthony Price. They resembled regal aliens beamed down from an early 70s idea of what pop stars in the Year 2000 would look like. And if the presentation of ‘Virginia Plain’ was a treat for the eyes, the record itself was a blistering banquet of sonic delights.

Subverting the standard formula of the pop single, ‘Virginia Plain’ fades in and ends abruptly rather than the other way round; but it’s also a song without a chorus, a song whose title only surfaces as the very last line. The first verse follows what sounds like an autobiography of the band struggling to get a recording deal, yet ‘We’ve been around a long time’ wasn’t necessarily the case, as Roxy didn’t spend years paying their dues on the college circuit; they were far more ambitious and went for the music business jugular from the off. As the song goes on, Ferry’s lyrics expand to encompass the kind of jet-set lifestyle the singer hopes success will bring – ‘Flavours of the mountain streamline/midnight blue casino floors/Dance the cha-cha through till sunrise/opens up exclusive doors’; this continues to the final verse – ‘Far beyond the pale horizon/some place near the desert strand/Where my Studebaker takes me/that’s where I’ll make my stand’. In the song that introduced the majority of the record-buying public to Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry sets his stall out and plots his future for all to see.

Whereas in later years, the prefix ‘Bryan Ferry and…’ became commonplace – largely due both to the public’s failure to distinguish between Roxy Music and Ferry’s concurrent solo career and Ferry’s eventual dominance of the band – early Roxy is very much a team effort. ‘Remake/Remodel’, the opening track on their debut album, contains tongue-in-cheek passages where each member of the band has two bars to showcase their individual instrumental skills; and ‘Virginia Plain’ offers similar opportunities to demonstrate they’re far from a one-man band, especially the instrumental section building up to the final verse, where Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno both shine. There’s no audible kitchen sink in ‘Virginia Plain’, but it sounds like pretty much everything else is present. 50 years old and it remains one of the great debut singles, probably because not only does it not sound like anything else from 1972, it still doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve ever heard.

The single served as the launch-pad for twelve months in which Roxy Music were the most innovative and inventive band in Britain; their second album, ‘For Your Pleasure’, was released in March 1973 and is arguably the band’s finest LP, with ‘Do The Strand’, ‘The Bogus Man’ and ‘In Every Dream Home, A Heartache’ all masterpieces of Roxy’s sublime blend of pop and the avant-garde. Then the strain of containing two such gigantic artistic egos as Ferry and Eno finally provoked a split in the ranks and the latter left the fold; although there were innumerable great songs to follow, Roxy Music were never quite the same again. And no other hit quite matched the superlative originality of their first – half a bloody century ago.

© The Editor

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FINAL SCORE

Football RadioSure, it’s not the end of the world; but it’s the end of something. The BBC’s decision to drop the classified football results from the long-running ‘Sports Report’ sounds like one of those crass decisions made by a new controller of the station in question (5 Live) who’s keen to make his mark and shake things up a bit. It’s a familiar pattern on BBC radio, like when the Radio 4 UK Theme was axed back in 2006. Commissioned in 1978 to open the station every morning after the handover from the World Service, the medley of traditional English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish melodies heralded the dawn of the day’s broadcasting and quickly became as much of a wireless institution as the theme tune to ‘The Archers’ or the sound of ‘Sailing By’ announcing the arrival of the Shipping Forecast. The man who wielded the axe for the UK Theme was the then-controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer; many were suspicious this was an action motivated by embarrassment within the ivory corridors of Broadcasting House that such a popular piece of music didn’t reflect the way the BBC likes to think of the nation, though Damazer claimed what he described as ‘a pacy news briefing’ was what listeners wanted first thing on a morning. Well, perhaps it was what the BBC overlords felt they ought to want first thing on a morning. After all, they know what’s best for us.

At a time when theme tunes introduced virtually all radio shows, the debut of ‘Sports Report’ in January 1948 naturally came with its own sonic calling card. ‘Out of the Blue’ was in the same vein as other jaunty themes to be found on the BBC Light Programme during this era, such as ‘Music While You Work’ or ‘Top of the Form’; it fitted perfectly into its times, yet along with the aforementioned theme from ‘The Archers’ and ‘Sailing By’ – as well as the theme to ‘Desert Island Discs’ – it’s one of the few to survive into the 21st century. ‘Out of the Blue’ has long since passed the stage of being regarded as old-fashioned, and its anachronistic sound is now recognised as the aural equivalent of a vintage item of clothing, cherished precisely because it is so antiquated and out of step with the here and now. In a sense, such a tune becomes timeless if it sticks around long enough; had it been replaced in the 80s or 90s, those replacement tunes would now sound more dated and old-fashioned than ‘Out of the Blue’ ever will.

The theme to ‘Sports Report’ is one of those pieces of music so bound up with the time and day of its transmission that it becomes inseparable from it, so utterly woven is it into the fabric of the Saturday teatime experience. Indeed, it’s as impossible to imagine hearing it on any other day as it would be to listen to a Christmas song in the middle of July. But it’s not simply ‘Out of the Blue’ itself that has been regarded as a time signal for millions of listeners for more than 70 years; what have always traditionally followed it are the classified football results. Remarkably, this weekly roll-call of winners and losers has only ever been recited by three different voices for the entire run of ‘Sports Report’. John Webster held the post from 1948 to 1974; James Alexander Gordon was the reader from 1974 to 2013; and Charlotte Green succeeded him, occupying the hot seat until the decision to drop the results was suddenly announced. The man in the middle of this trio with golden vocal chords is the one most of us grew up with. James Alexander Gordon’s famous delivery, in which his intonation would rise and fall to indicate whether the home team had won, drawn or lost before revealing how many goals they’d scored or conceded, was a hallmark of listening to the classifieds for almost 40 years, and one that left the listener eager to hear every result, not just the one involving their own team.

Even with the advent of ‘Grandstand’ on TV and its super-fast ‘tele-printer’ bringing the results to the viewer in the comfort of their living room, the classified football results on the radio were still a vital source of information for the supporters, especially those on the long journey home from an away game. If one were lucky enough to be making that journey home by car after a cold, wet fixture in some drab provincial town, the sound of the afternoon’s results being read by James Alexander Gordon would be as soothing to the occupants of the vehicle as a roaring fire would be to the fair-weather fan who stayed at home. I suppose it is this warm association that has given the results on the radio such an affectionate place in their hearts of football followers for decades, and why their abrupt removal has been met with the same kind of anger that the axing of the Radio 4 UK Theme provoked in 2006. A couple of years ago, a book I wrote about the 1970 FA Cup Final – ‘No Place for Boys’ – contained a passage on the subject of how significant the reading of the classified results on ‘Sports Report’ has continued to be, and I reproduce it here to spell it out…

For generations of football fans, even those who can now access every result via their Smartphones seconds after the final whistles have been blown, tuning in is still key to the experience of following the sport in Britain. If football is a religion, then the ritual of catching ‘Sports Report’ late on a Saturday afternoon is one of its holiest ceremonies. In a curious way, hearing all those score-lines coming in from across the country is one of the rare moments when that country actually feels like the otherwise-mythical One Nation, with millions of its citizens sharing the same sensations at the same time – all the way from Elgin City FC down to Plymouth Argyle. And whichever end of the country you’re at, all you need is a radio and you’re part of it.

The reason the BBC has given for dropping the classified football results from ‘Sports Report’ is that live commentary on the Premier League fixture at 5.30pm means the programme has been shortened and there’s no room for the results in the mix anymore. Sounds a bit like ‘the pacy news briefing’ excuse Mark Damazer used. This particular excuse was also expanded upon in a rather predictable way, citing the availability of other, faster means of accessing the day’s results than the traditional practice of waiting to hear them at 5.00. This misses the point entirely. Just as far more landlubbers tune into the Shipping Forecast than fishermen – who could access all the shipping news they need in a superior form to ye olde Long Wave via satellite tracking systems – the fanatical Sky Sports subscriber who rarely takes his eyes from the screen as scores are flooding in throughout the afternoon is not the target; many listeners who couldn’t care less about the sport switch on simply to hear the names being recited. In the flesh, Crewe Alexandra or Queen of the South are no more exotic locations on the map than Cromarty or German Bight, but when their names are joined together for the recital, they acquire a uniquely poetic resonance that renders them almost romantic. And there’s not a lot of romance about in 2022.

Expecting anyone at the BBC today to remotely understand their listeners is a tall order; dropping the classified football results is merely another example of not only how out-of-touch the Beeb is with its audience, but how it continues to view it with condescending contempt. When the ground beneath the feet is as insecure and unstable as it is at uncertain and often unnerving times like these, people tend to be naturally drawn to the few remaining signposts they feel they can rely on to reassure them all is not lost. During that first bewildering lockdown, millions retreated into the safe womb of nostalgic telly, music and pastimes, desperately seeking something that could take their minds off the horrors of the present day. We may be through the worst now, but the scars of that unsettling time run deep and variations on the Project Fear formula are keeping many in a state of emergency. The yearning for the kind of security that is connected to less stressful and more innocent times remains potent. The classified football results were a fixed point at a fixed time on a fixed day, and had been since most of our parents were in short pants. Taking them away now is not a great idea.

© The Editor

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TO HULL AND BACK

Cover - CopyConsidering the vast personality chasm between them during their lifetimes, there’s an irony to the fact Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes have been involuntary united in the afterlife by finding themselves on the hit-list of the permanently offended, those fanatical rewriters of history who are determined to find fault with any revered figures of the past who don’t reflect their contemporary dogma back at them. Mind you, both Larkin and Hughes had their detractors when they were alive and kicking. The latter was targeted by extreme activists of the feminist persuasion, convinced he drove his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, to an early grave – despite the fact the troubled Plath had attempted suicide ten years before she succeeded, and at a time when she had yet to meet her future husband. Hughes became Poet Laureate back when it was a job for life, though he only replaced Larkin’s friend John Betjeman in 1984 because first choice Larkin had turned down the honour; as it turned out, Larkin himself died just a year after Betjeman, so it was probably just as well the post went to the man Larkin referred to as ‘The Incredible Hulk’.

Criticism of Philip Larkin in his lifetime tended to be criticism of his actual poetry; misreading of this led to the man himself being (inaccurately) portrayed as a miserable curmudgeon. It was only when his private letters were published several years after his death that the more familiar criticism of the kind that is levelled at him with more ferocity today emerged. He’s considered ‘problematic’ because he’s viewed as right-wing, racist and misogynistic. As far as being right-wing goes, it is true that his father – who was extremely right-wing – was a fan of Adolph and went so far as to take his young son on a tour of Nazi Germany before the War, even attending the Nuremburg rallies. Yet, one of the curious ironies of Larkin’s life is that his private grumblings about ‘immigrants’ went hand-in-hand with his passionate love of Jazz and its practitioners, most of whom were black. The record he said he’d rescue from the waves on ‘Desert Island Discs’ was by Bessie Smith.

Similarly, his allegedly ‘sexist’ attitude towards women derives largely from his fondness for soft porn revealed in his published letters, yet this accusation is contradicted by the fact he loved women so much that at one time he had three on the go; and one of this trio, university lecturer Monica Jones, was the longest love of Larkin’s life. Their relationship spanned almost 40 years. Despite their intellectual and emotional compatibility, the only time they actually lived together was during the last couple of years of Larkin’s life, when he cared for Monica following a spell she’d had in hospital. For a man who physically resembled a gawky Eric Morecambe, Larkin evidently possessed an abundance of charm and charisma that attracted women, something that the caricature of him as a grumpy old git would have negated were it true. I suppose one could say conducting three simultaneous affairs doesn’t necessarily hold him up as ideal husband material, but all of Larkin’s faults and foibles when it comes to the three factors that remain sticks to beat him with simply show him for what he was – a human being capable (as are we all) of ‘unclean thoughts’. And it is this humanity that comes across so vividly in his verse.

It’s not unreasonable to surmise that one reason why Larkin was sometimes received less than enthusiastically by the literary establishment in his lifetime was the fact he largely shunned the creative cliques of the cocooned capital. Larkin was a poet of the provinces, the finest poetic commentator on the mood and mores of immediate post-war Britain as it existed outside of London. But then, he was a product of the provinces, born in Coventry 100 years ago this month. Once he’d escaped the stranglehold of Auden and Yeats as key influences on his early work, Larkin gradually began to develop a uniquely individual voice that combined the melancholy beauty of a fellow poet like Betjeman with the bleak black comedy of a playwright like John Osborne. His words flow with a literary flourish, but they also speak in simple and often blunt English that anyone born after 1945 can relate to. Indeed, what qualifies Larkin as a poet whose reputation in terms of his art remains so strong is that, along with Betjeman, he’s one of the few poets of recent decades whose lines are routinely quoted by those not necessarily regarded as bookworms.

One of the most quoted is from ‘Annus Mirabilis’, his astute observation on being too old to be a participant in the Swinging decade he just missed out on, something many born on the wrong side of WWII must have mused upon in the 60s – ‘Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me)/Between the end of the Chatterley ban and The Beatles’ first LP’; as he was someone who had to navigate the oppressive etiquette that dictated clandestine courtship in the 1950s, it must indeed have been frustrating to watch a generation emerge who weren’t bound by such rigid regulations. Then of course, there are the infamous opening lines of ‘This Be The Verse’ – ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad/they don’t mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/and add some extra, just for you.’ A misconstrued poem, certainly; it has nothing to do with the juvenile sensibilities of some anti-parent pop song, but actually offers a sympathetic perspective on how an individual inherits both the good and bad that their own parents themselves inherited. ‘They were fucked up in their turn’, he goes on to say, before concluding, ‘Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf/Get out as early as you can/and don’t have any kids yourself.’

His two most famous poems quoted in the previous paragraph were penned in 1967 and 1971 respectively; by the time Larkin was offered the laureateship in 1984, his purple patch had somewhat run dry and he himself felt all his best poems had probably been written. He was also averse to the pressures that being Poet Laureate could possibly heap upon the creative juices, something he expressed to John Betjeman in a profile for the BBC’s ‘Monitor’ series in 1964. The idea of having to compose ‘on demand’ was not something that appealed to him, and even the most devoted disciple of Betjeman or Hughes could hardly claim the two poets’ finest works were the ones they were obliged to write as part of their Laureate duties when responding to a royal event, whether that be a marriage, a birth or a jubilee. Such a duty would have been anathema to Larkin, who recognised the greatest poets created in response to impulsive flashes of inspiration not dictated by outside forces, but by the erratic influence of the Muse. Betjeman also envied Larkin’s day job, that of head librarian at Hull University, a post he accepted in 1955 and held until his death at the age of 63 thirty years later.

His qualifications for the job were past stints working in the university libraries of Leicester and Belfast, but in Hull he found the perfect city for his particular worldview, being situated (as it often feels to its inhabitants) on the edge of the world, with endless grey vistas looking out onto a void where the nearest landmass is Scandinavia. Although already a published author, Larkin felt he needed more to his day than wrestling with the Muse; as he wrote in the poem ‘Toads Revisited’, ‘No, give me my in-tray, my loaf-haired secretary/my shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir/What else can I answer, when the lights come on at four/at the end of another year?’ And his post in Hull was no vanity project; he threw himself into it with gusto and oversaw the reconstruction of the building as well as instigating the installation of a computerised records system years before it became common practice. Perhaps the fact he had a life beyond the written word, one that infused his poetry with such wry observations on the human condition (something that eludes many poets permanently positioned as ‘outsiders’) gave him an accessibility that continues to speak to anyone who acutely feels the limitations of life whilst also seeing the unsung joy it occasionally throws up with the kind of laconic humour entirely absent from those who seek to block, ban, censor, and cancel.

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PHYSICAL GRAFFITI

OliviaNext year’s Eurovision being staged in Blighty by default isn’t necessarily a unique event; the tradition of one year’s winning nation hosting the following year’s Contest has been disrupted several times in the past, and the UK has stepped in to host proceedings as a substitute more than once, usually when the winning nation has found staging the contest an impossibility, the last time (until 2023) being 1974. Luxembourg had claimed the crown in 1973, but the Grand Duchy’s second consecutive win proved to be a financial bridge too far for the principality and Britain stepped in again, nominating the Brighton Dome as a venue. Of course, a certain four-piece from Sweden eventually captured the headlines with a stomping slice of sub-Glam Rock called ‘Waterloo’, and every other performance that year tends to linger in Abba’s shadow, despite the 1974 Eurovision producing a record number of UK hits. Aside from the celebrated chart-topping winner, the runner-up – Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti with ‘Si’ – reached No.8; Holland’s third-placed entry, ‘I See a Star’ by Mouth & MacNeal, peaked at the same position; and the UK’s very own ‘Long Live Love’ made the charts at No.11; the singer of that song was Olivia Newton-John.

The sad news that the British-born Aussie siren has passed away following a long on-off battle with cancer at the age of 73 is bound to provoke a bout of melancholic nostalgia in anyone of a certain age, particularly those (like me) whose bedroom walls she provided the first female presence upon. Remember poster magazines? They were regular fixtures on newsagents’ shelves in the 70s; they’d contain text on each page and would then be unfolded to reveal a huge poster of the featured subject on the flipside of the text. Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong had been the first such poster magazine stars of my own personal childhood gallery until the 1978 movie version of ‘Grease’ came along and ushered in a different era, whereby pop stars replaced fantasy figures on the wall. Olivia Newton-John in the black satin pants she apparently had to be sewn-into for ‘You’re the One That I Want’ decorated said wall for a few months that year, upholding the appeal of the ‘bad girl’ that Suzi Quatro had monopolised with such memorable sensual vitality a few years earlier.

This Olivia was in direct contrast with the sweet girl-next-door version of ‘Sandy’ that constituted the majority of ‘Grease’, providing the movie with a climax that those who were around at the time tend to remember as the most iconic sequence of the film. Like the rest of the cast of the original high-school musical, Olivia Newton-John was more than a decade away from school age when making it (she was pushing 30), but it gave her two of the best-selling singles in UK chart history in 1978, both of which were duets with co-star John Travolta. ‘You’re the One That I Want’ was No.1 for nine weeks, whilst ‘Summer Nights’ managed seven. A couple of years later, ‘Xanadu’ may have been a movie savaged by the critics, yet it still produced another chart-topper in collaboration with the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO’s only No.1); and the following year, Olivia’s star was in the ascendancy on the other side of the Atlantic when she pushed the sexuality of satin pants Sandy into more dubious lyrical territory with ‘Physical’, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for ten weeks.

It was all a far cry from the wholesome songstress whose first hit was a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘If Not For You’ a decade before, a breakthrough followed by forays into radio-friendly Country Pop like ‘Banks of the Ohio’ and ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. She’d arrived back in her homeland after spending the majority of her childhood in Australia, making the same return journey as The Bee Gees around the same time. Born in Cambridge in 1948, the daughter of an MI5 officer who’d been on the Bletchley Park Enigma code-cracking team during WWII, she attempted to slot into the showbiz style of the biggest Brit female stars such as Lulu, Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield once she returned to the UK as the winner of an Aussie talent contest. All had progressed from the charts to hosting their own prime-time BBC variety showcases, whereas Olivia quickly found herself effectively adopted by Cliff Richard and The Shadows, appearing regularly on Cliff’s early 70s TV show and becoming romantically involved with Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch; when she ended the relationship, a devastated Welch attempted suicide. Thankfully, the attempt failed and Olivia Newton-John continued to progress along the path established for UK pop ‘dollybirds’ by being selected to represent the nation at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974.

Like Sandie Shaw and Lulu before her, Olivia wasn’t keen on the song the public voted for her to perform at the Eurovision, but she did her duty and gave her all to a plodder that was very much in a staid tradition that Abba blew out of the water overnight. A fourth-placed finish would’ve been hailed as a triumph in more recent years, but in 1974 it was regarded as a bit humiliating. Thereafter, Olivia moved away from the MOR circuit and resumed her flirtation with Country and Western-flavoured sounds; this paid off in the US, where she scored a No.1 hit in 1974 with ‘I Honestly Love You’; the success of this song in the States – and its chart-topping follow-up, ’Have You Never Been Mellow’ – prompted her to relocate there in the mid-70s as her British hits dried up. It was a timely move. Aside from 1977’s ‘Sam’, which reached No.6 in the UK, Olivia didn’t trouble the British charts again until the phenomenal success of all the ‘Grease’ singles in 1978, including her solo ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, which was kept off the No.1 spot by The Boomtown Rats’ ‘Rat Trap’.

After establishing herself as the predominant female pop star in the US with ‘Physical’, Olivia Newton-John’s stateside star surprisingly faded swiftly thereafter, overtaken by younger upstarts such as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. After taking time out to marry her long-time boyfriend Matt Lattanzi and become a mother, she returned later in the 80s, but found even younger newcomers like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany occupying the ground she’d previously dominated, and she never regained that ground despite staging various comebacks that carried her into the 90s. However, all of this was placed on ice when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. Despite winning that stage of the battle, the cancer returned both in 2013 and 2017; the latter proved to be a tougher opponent than her previous bouts and it ended up spreading to her bones, causing her so much pain that she turned to cannabis for relief and ended up becoming a vocal advocate for its medicinal use.

Aside from Bruce Welch’s attempted suicide, the most notable incident in Olivia Newton-John’s personal life was the strange disappearance of her post-divorce, on-off boyfriend Patrick McDermott, who mysteriously vanished from a fishing boat off the coast of Los Angeles in 2005; persistent rumours that he faked his own death have been compounded by the fact that his body has never been found. Their relationship had already ended around the time of his disappearance and she married again in 2008, a union that lasted all the way to her death. I guess the announcement that the cancer which had bedevilled her for the best part of 30 years has finally claimed her provides a poignant opportunity to reassess her lengthy career now that there will be no further comebacks.

Although not an ‘artist’ in the vein of a Joni Mitchell or a Kate Bush, Olivia Newton-John nevertheless had a fascinating journey that took her all the way from Australia to BBC light-entertainment and from Hollywood to US pop royalty – and one could say she paved the way for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Whatever her legacy, Olivia Newton-John made a mark that, for a brief period, placed her at the top of a showbiz tree that is no mean feat to reach. And the image of her stubbing out her cigarette beneath stilettos is one that will remain a potent snapshot of 20th century pop culture for however long the shadow cast by 20th century pop culture lingers. Right now, it seems like it will linger for a hell of a while.

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THE TOWPATH TO WIGAN PIER

Anal JourneysDavid Warner, Bernard Cribbins, Nichelle Nichols – they’re dropping like flies again; and in tandem with the passing of familiar famous faces whose finest performances evoke inevitable nostalgia, a purely unrelated excursion on my part has involved delving into a retro-scented environment as redolent of a disappearing world as those dearly departed characters were. Over the past month, I’ve followed a route carved-out by navvies more than 200 years ago and ended up at a landmark George Orwell immortalised in 1937, despite the fact even he arrived too late to catch the decrepit remnants of an old music-hall gag. A lengthy post-war restoration of our man-made waterways has perhaps neutered their industrial origins, yet a wooden jetty erected to assist the loading of coal onto working barges was labelled a pier as an ironic dig at a town sorely lacking in the gaudy glamour that the coastal escape routes offered the colliers whose booty the vanished edifice was once weighed down by. The fact a functional construction was jokingly compared to a seaside stalwart highlights how the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, upon which the actual Wigan Pier stood, was very much a workplace for the majority of its existence, something it’s easy to forget when one strolls beside it today.

The Canal cuts a sublime swathe across the Pennines for 127 miles, and almost half-a-century ago a small segment of it provided yours truly with a picturesque playground during seemingly endless school holidays; back then, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was on my doorstep, and improvised summer outings along the towpath left a lifelong love of the location it’s been nice to revive. This time round I’ve followed that path on the other side of the geographical divide, however, with the starting point being the West Lancashire town of Burscough. Although less than 10 miles from Wigan, walking all the way using the Canal as a route is a method of getting from A to B that consciously makes journey’s end something to prolong. Unlike the internal combustion engine – rendering the journey itself an inconvenience to be got through as quickly as possible – when one walks along a canal, it’s all about the journey rather than the destination. In terms of reaching the finishing post, it’s far more tortoise than hare. Leisurely is the word.

Indeed, the leisurely pace of a canal trek is something that again emphasises the changing purpose of this country’s waterway network. When barges are sighted on canals today, nine out of ten times they’re either pleasure cruisers or alternative dwellings for the eccentric; the former come and go as must-have accessories, with the barges belonging to some of the more faddish wannabe shipping magnates betraying their sell-by dates via their shabby, neglected state as they sit permanently moored and gathering dust. Of course, if the more zealous members of the green lobby get their way, a century from now we may well see road vehicles as we now see canal vessels; perhaps a visitation of future transport-for-all came courtesy of the occasional cyclists along the canal path that required rather tiresome standing aside at certain points of the route. At least some cyclists had bells on their bikes to warn pedestrians they were creeping up from behind, whereas others exhibited the same entitled arrogance the revamped Highway Code has misguidedly legitimised on the roads. Either way, the mess that tyres have made of the path is something that a drop of rain can exacerbate, making the journey on foot one in which veering too close to the edge is even more ill-advised.

Actually, any rainfall that took place didn’t occur whilst I was walking the towpath; I was fortunate that each leg of this journey was staged on days when the sun had got his hat on. As if to underline the prosaic nature of the trek, the walk from Burscough to Wigan was undertaken in isolated episodes spread over several weeks. Also, a pattern was established whereby the end of every stage would then see the immediate retracing of steps after a drink and bite to eat; for example, stage one was from Burscough to the village of Parbold, though once this said hamlet had been reached it was then followed by backtracking to Burscough (where the car was parked). Stage two on a different day began at Parbold and went all the way to the commuter village of Appley Bridge; when that was achieved, a return visit to Parbold was then in order – and so on. Stage three: Appley Bridge to Gathurst, a district of the township of Shevington; and stage four consisted of Gathurst to Wigan. The inspiration for this undertaking was the late, great Ian Nairn, whose 1972 trilogy of documentaries for the BBC saw him travel from London to Manchester by road, Manchester to Leeds by canal, and Leeds to Edinburgh by rail. The canal seemed the more economic option in these cost-of-living crisis days, not to mention providing a suitably serene travelling experience.

Certain sections of the route were marked by blissful vortexes of natural quiet, often spanning a good ten-fifteen minutes without sight or sound of another human being or the noise pollution of traffic. Indeed, it was these sedate passages that most evoked childhood memories; there’s something inescapably calming about a location with an abundance of wild flowers on one side and water on the other that taps into an impression of summer as seen through a child’s eyes as much as the mellifluous commentary of John Arlott transmitting on Long Wave represents the season’s sound in the imagination. Other than cyclists, the only interruption would come via the occasional fisherman positioned by the side of the canal or the odd dog-walker and his/her canine companion. Long periods of untouched nature would be periodically intruded upon by affluent settlements – old tied cottages refurbished for the nouveau riche and new-builds attempting to blend in to the surroundings, with the regular incursion of archaic coaching inns remodelled as gastro-pubs making the most of having survived both the smoking ban and lockdown. All of these somehow seemed integral to the landscape, however; even a motorway bridge that crossed the canal during the stage with Gathurst as its finishing post could be admired as a feat of engineering as impressive as the canal itself rather than an unwelcome 20th century gate-crasher.

When the end of the line was eventually reached, I experienced a similar sense of anticlimax as Eric Blair himself must have felt 85 years ago; where be Wigan Pier? Well, the site that bears that famous name today largely consists of several expensive-looking ‘luxury apartments’ or work units that sadly stand unoccupied. In a way, this serves as a melancholy metaphor for the town of Wigan itself. A cursory online exploration reveals a settlement that Ian Nairn particularly praised in the 1960s as a fine example of a thriving Northern enclave that had transcended its industrial roots once boasted a characteristic Victorian market hall that embodied the spirit of the place. Alas, like many such locations during a period in which town councillors became drunk on the unrealisable visions of town planners, Wigan suffered from over-ambition, and even the ‘Casino’ that put Northern Soul on the map in the 70s has long since fallen beneath the dubious wrecking-ball of progress.

My previous visit to Wigan – only in the dying days of 2021 – found the old market’s replacement still open to the public, even if most of the shops housed in it were closed for business; seven months later, the entire area has been boarded-up and blocked-off; ‘1989’ is the giveaway year of its erection imprinted in the architecture, though the fact the town’s beating heart was swept away to accommodate a misguided attempt at urban regeneration was mirrored in the plethora of lunchtime pissheads and mobility scooters for the clinically obese that left the saddest impression on the visitor. Thankfully, the established order of my canal trek meant a dispiriting Wigan was followed by a return to the less-depressing environs of Gathurst. Overall, though, the lingering impact of an impromptu journey was of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal itself as opposed to the town at the end of it. The timeless appeal of this country’s unsung waterways remains unpolluted by ‘progress’, and as a method of seeing the country in a refreshingly alternate light, I can’t think of anything better.

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SLICES OF LIFE

Alison SteadmanIt could be connected to the Commonwealth Games being staged in Birmingham or maybe it’s simply part of the BBC’s centenary celebrations; whatever the reason, the rare opportunity to see some episodes of the Corporation’s mid-70s series of single plays, ‘Second City Firsts’, has been a nice surprise for those who mourn BBC4’s descent into a repeat channel for shows that have been seen too many times before. This series, produced at the late lamented Pebble Mill studios in Brum, was a mouthpiece for voices without much in the way of a nationwide platform at the time, and perhaps it’s only the notoriously shabby treatment of the BBC’s archives in the 1970s that has prevented any of the instalments from receiving an outing since. Thankfully, the likes of the Kaleidoscope organisation are renowned for retrieving lost gems from private collections, and viewers this week were treated to a trio of ‘Second City Firsts’ that were an eye-opening breath of fresh air when it comes to vintage television.

Only one of the three screened – 1975’s ‘Club Havana’ – seemed specific to the actual city the plays were produced in. This dealt with the arrival in Britain of a young man from Jamaica whose mother had been given a decade to lay down roots in Handsworth – one of the areas of Birmingham that experienced high immigration from the West Indies during the 50s and 60s. In many respects, Handsworth was a blueprint for the impact of the Windrush generation across Britain’s old industrial towns, being amongst the first to recruit Afro-Caribbean labour to work in munitions factories during the Second World War. By the time of the TV play’s production, a heavy immigrant population from the Indian Subcontinent had become predominant in neighbouring Smethwick, though Birmingham’s black community had seniority, something that was reflected in the play itself. The new arrival walking into a well-established community was played by Don Warrington, already making a mark in ‘Rising Damp’, whilst his mother was played by the familiar face of Mona Hammond, who sadly passed away at the beginning of this month.

‘Club Havana’ was a fascinating dip into a British black experience which was a hidden world from TV viewers in 1975, despite having a vintage of 30 years in Handsworth by then. Warrington’s character was that of an idealistic teacher eager to use education to liberate the future factory fodder from the destiny capitalism had selected for it; his attraction to the white barmaid (played by Julie Walters in her first TV appearance) at the ‘speakeasy’ run by his mother sparked tensions due to his father’s desertion into the arms of white women years before. Her prejudicial response to how only the lowest-grade ‘white trash’ females were deemed the best that even the most ‘middle-class’ West Indian immigrant could hope for highlighted an aspect of multiracial Britain that probably wouldn’t be touched upon today.

In 1975, it would be another three years before the debut of the BBC2 drama series ‘Empire Road’ (also set in Birmingham), which was described during its too-short run as ‘the black Coronation Street’, probably because Granada’s evergreen soap didn’t have any black characters back then. Unlike now, when the presence of any non-white character in a BBC drama often feels like box-ticking tokenism, the 70s view was to present immigrant stories as intriguing windows to a parallel universe Britain that the rest of the population was largely ignorant of rather than pretend we all reside in some fantasy rainbow nation where colour only registers when the guilt-stricken white middle-classes release their latest list of the most oppressed minorities to be patronised. But it wasn’t only colour that ‘Second City Firsts’ dealt with in its exploration of tales from the country’s invisible fringes. Perhaps the most well-known play in the series’ canon was 1974’s ‘Girl’, starring a pre-‘Abigail’s Party’ Alison Steadman as a young woman fresh from a relationship with another woman.

It’s interesting how the genuine female experience has been downgraded in the brave new, non-binary 21st century world of Identity Politics so that the word ‘lesbian’ is now deemed to have transphobic connotations. The BBC4 continuity announcer claimed the play contained the first ‘same-sex’ kiss on British television, which isn’t actually true; that had come four years earlier in a production of Marlowe’s ‘Edward II’ starring Ian McKellern. What ‘Girl’ featured was the first lesbian kiss on British television, but lesbian now appears to have been reclassified as an offensive word, buried in the ubiquitous LGBTXYZ acronym; some progress, eh? The play itself contained ye olde slang term ‘dyke’, uttered by the dykes themselves just as the black characters in ‘Club Havana’ were the only ones who said the N word; yes, it was a full six years on from ‘The Killing of Sister George’, but cinema as the 60s turned into the 70s was always one step ahead of the small-screen. What viewers would pay to see at their local fleapit was different to what the masses were served up on the box; the likelihood that the Mary Whitehouses of this world would blow a fuse and besiege the Beeb was paramount in broadcasters’ minds, but perhaps a series of plays hidden away on the nation’s only ‘minority’ channel was the perfect compromise in 1974.

Nevertheless, at the time, the programme apparently attracted a flurry of outraged letters to the Radio Times, describing it as ‘repugnant’ and ‘nauseating’. 48 years on, what struck me more than anything was how unusual it was to see such damaged stock being transmitted in the Hi-Definition digital era; the off-air recording of the programme is the only version that exists and will no doubt have been subjected to meticulous restoration prior to broadcast. It still looked like an old bootleg tape, though as someone accustomed to viewing recovered vintage TV, it didn’t really bother me. At times, the picture quality reminded me of the Duran Duran VHS I had in the 80s; whenever I leant it out to a friend it would always come back with the segment featuring the full-length ‘Girls on Film’ promo strangely damaged. I could never work out why. Oh, well…

Ropy visuals aside, ‘Girl’ came across as a surprisingly candid portrayal of butch lady soldiers for the time. Alison Steadman’s character is being discharged from the Army due to becoming pregnant via a close encounter with a man, one that she describes as rape in all-but name; her determination to have the baby baffles the superior female officer she’d had an affair with, though it eventually transpires the officer in question is something of a predator and will evidently find another ‘lamb’ to seduce come the next intake of recruits.

The third play dusted down and given its first airing since its initial broadcast was called ‘Glitter’. This starred two teenage ones-to-watch, Phil Daniels and Toyah Willcox, cast three years before being reunited in ‘Quadrophenia’. The latter played a hopeful pop star half-a-decade ahead of becoming a bona-fide Top 10 regular, whereas the former would have to wait a further 18 years before his one moment of pop glory via his guest vocals on Blur’s ‘Park Life’. This one was a rather surreal affair, even featuring a cameo from Noel Edmonds, though the nicest surprise was being alerted as to how Toyah looked before the extensive plastic surgery that has rendered her weekly YT outing with hubby Robert Fripp such an embarrassing freak-show. In retrospect, it was probably the weakest of the three, though what all of them evoked was a sense of sadness that the single play – a genre that uniquely combined both critical acclaim and large viewing figures in its lengthy heyday – is now a notable absentee from mainstream TV schedules. As ‘Second City Firsts’ reminded us, that’s a crying shame.

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OLD GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS

Kate BushIt’d be easy to be unaware of the fact the UK singles chart still exists in 2022; the kind of coverage this one-time essential pop cultural institution was once afforded is long gone, with its traditional trio of promotional tools – ‘Top of the Pops’, Radio 1’s Sunday teatime Top 40, and the music press – all now part of the over-40s collective memory bank rather than a living, breathing barometer of where it’s at. It seems the sole reason the singles chart survives as a redundant relic of another era is simply its ongoing role as a yardstick for the music industry to measure its reach in terms of sales; to the general public for whom it once held as much fascination as the Premier League table, however, it means nothing. Being able to name the week’s No.1 hit isn’t even something most teenagers could probably manage today, and the chart appears to retain the ‘singles’ prefix simply to distinguish its content from the album chart – although any song is eligible for inclusion as long as it’s downloaded enough times, official ‘single’ or not.

Therefore, the sudden presence of 63-year-old Kate Bush at the top of the singles chart with a 36-year-old song in 2022 should be something that barely raises an eyebrow. Yet, the return of Kate Bush to a position she hasn’t occupied since her 1978 debut hit, ‘Wuthering Heights’, has received extensive media reportage in the last few days; ‘Woman’s Hour’ even managed the coup of a down-the-line interview with the reclusive Kate – though the fact it was conducted via Ms Bush’s landline telephone was a nice touch that seemed to emphasise a somewhat quaint analogue element adding to her mystique. The vintage slice of Kate Bush’s oeuvre that currently sits atop the singles chart is ‘Running Up That Hill’, the lead single from her 1985 album, ‘Hounds of Love’. The track originally peaked at No.3, kick-starting Bush’s commercial renaissance following a fallow period in which her increasingly adventurous vision failed to connect with the record-buying public. Its elevation two places higher in 2022 is apparently due to heavy rotation in a Netflix series called ‘Stranger Things’.

Obscure gems excavated by movies, ads and TV series have provided many unjustly-overlooked musicians with a delayed pay-check in recent times, yet neither Kate Bush nor ‘Running Up That Hill’ fall into that category. Her career has spanned the best part of 45 years and constitutes dozens of hit singles and several chart-topping albums, beginning when she was just 19. She’s been a household name to more than one generation, and her exceedingly rare return to the stage in 2014 was greeted by some fans as the Second Coming; the fact her live show consisted of 22 nights at the same theatre – the Hammersmith Apollo – seemed to once more single her out as a unique performer unwilling to embark upon the touring treadmill, despite being away from the stage for 35 years. As a survivor of an era that produced such gifted and original talent, Kate Bush remains something of a national treasure, and for her to be back at No.1 – however meaningless an achievement that might now be – is indicative of not just an enduring affection for her, but symbolises something wider in pop culture.

30 years ago, the late music writer Ian MacDonald could sense which way the wind was blowing with remarkable prescience. When referring to the contemporary rap and dance scenes at the turn-of-the-90s, he wrote ‘The effect of presenting rhythms by drum machines and later by drum samplers, slave to sequencers, has been to elevate the groove over every other musical priority; at its simplest, this means that songs are now written from the rhythm track upwards, rather from the melodic, harmonic idea as was the case in almost all 60s music.’ For all its generous electronic enhancement – and Kate Bush was always ahead of the game on that score – the technology that enabled ‘Running Up That Hill’ to sound cutting edge in 1985 doesn’t overwhelm the human element, with Kate Bush’s distinctive voice and its inherent humanity shining above and beyond the pseudo-tribal drumbeat. Even the notoriously soulless production values of the mid-80s can’t entirely erase the personality of the performer in the way the Auto-tuned, mechanised music of the 21st century has managed to squeeze it out. And to a new generation discovering the Kate Bush back catalogue via Netflix exposure, perhaps it is this quality – and the novel structure of songs not ‘written from the rhythm track upwards’ – that makes her sound so refreshing to unaccustomed ears.

When contemporary pop bows to the need for melody to give its monotonous rhythm track an earworm, more often than not the earworm chosen is either a sample from an organic, analogue track of 50-odd years ago – which adds the aforementioned human element lacking from the present day toolbox – or a ‘new’ melody that borrows so heavily from an old one that it’s just a few bars away from accusations of plagiarism and an inevitable appearance in the copyright court; the ‘Blurred Lines’ case of 2015 ruled in favour of Marvin Gaye’s estate, following claims the Robin Thicke track leaned a little too close to Gaye’s 1977 hit, ‘Got to Give it Up’. ‘Blurred Lines’ was a hit largely on the back of its infamous video, the uncensored version of which featured a topless model; considering my own YT channel was recently terminated on spurious grounds of ‘nudity’, the said video was still on there just a few months ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it still is. Anyway, I digress…

It’s interesting that Kate Bush’s overnight rediscovery is no isolated incident. An article by Ted Gioia that recently appeared in the Atlantic magazine quoted stats stating ‘old songs’ now constitute 70% of the US music market according to the latest data – yes, 70%. It seems you can’t keep an old song down, especially when new songs are found wanting in the qualities that have made old songs evergreen; the article goes on to say that the 200 most popular new tracks on the likes of Spotify actually account for less than 5% of total streams, a rate that was twice as high a mere three years ago. ‘Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact,’ writes Gioia. ‘Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona-fide hits can pass by unnoticed by much of the population.’

Some of the more vintage acts remaining alive and kicking have decided to capitalise on ongoing interest in their body of work by selling-off their back catalogues, making one last mint from the family silver whilst they’re still around to enjoy it, especially when royalties from streaming sites are so pitiful. Prominent veterans such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen have all taken this path recently, and they’re fortunate they have those back catalogues; no artist of their grandchildren’s generation has that advantage.

Old and deceased musicians also satisfy cravings for the classics by transcending the physical and hitting the road as holograms – Elvis Presley and Abba have both been reborn as live acts utilising such technology, and we can probably look forward to the trend becoming the norm as more of the golden generation of musicians shuffle off this mortal coil. Paul McCartney may be physically headlining this year’s Glastonbury merely days into his tenure as an octogenarian, but he’ll probably still be headlining the festival 20 years from now as a 3D CGI facsimile. Perhaps Her Majesty could try a similar approach, if it prevents Charles from a reign few outside of Clarence House are looking forward to.

Along with the findings revealed in the Ted Gioia Atlantic article regarding the dominance of old songs on streaming sites, the best-selling physical format in music right now is the vinyl LP. And Kate Bush is No.1 in the singles chart. Perhaps, just as bookworms were still reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ in 1978 – 130 years after its publication – music lovers will still be listening to ‘Wuthering Heights’ in 2108. Nobody today would junk Beethoven or Bach from the Proms on the grounds they’re ‘old’, so maybe we shouldn’t expect 20th century music to be excised from playlists either. Perhaps this is the beginning of its elevation to permanent ‘classic’ status, where it will probably remain as long as people want to listen.

© The Editor

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MOONAGE DAYDREAMS

Bowie 72 DHard to believe now, but there was once a time when David Bowie was regarded as a one-hit wonder; this was when, after a testing, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful journey as an aspiring pop star throughout the 60s, Bowie finally gatecrashed the Top 5 at the very end of the decade. ‘Space Oddity’ launched him into the charts by capitalising on the 1969 Moon Landing, even if this atmospheric and unsettling song chronicling the doomed mission of an astronaut lost in space was at odds with the global euphoria that greeted Neil Armstrong’s achievement. It marked him out as one to watch, which must have made it all the more dispiriting for Bowie himself to then follow Major Tom into a black hole and fail to come up with that all-important second hit. At the beginning of the 70s, Bowie vanished off the public radar he’d spent so long trying to be picked up on and his career progressed largely unnoticed by record-buyers; during this period, his restlessness manifested itself as intriguing flirtations with musical trends then prevalent in that uncertain post-Beatles world.

His 1970 album, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, was an electrifying excursion into the dark heart of Hard Rock, a timely move in a year dominated by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But Bowie’s exceptional intellect elevated the lyrical concerns of the album above the usual Blues Rock clichés, making for a uniquely original take on a style of music not renowned for highbrow content. Despite featuring the debut of Mick Ronson, the axe-man who would become Bowie’s priceless sidekick for the next three years, Bowie seemed to sabotage any potential success for the LP when he decided to pose for the sleeve wearing a dress. Mick Jagger may have got away with briefly donning a man’s frock in Hyde Park the year before, but he was a household name with carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted. Bowie was still only known for the one hit and had yet to build himself a fan-base that could translate into sustained commercial success. An album cover with him resembling a stoned Veronica Lake languidly lounging on the sofa was not one guaranteed to win him the favour of the denim crowd, despite the music on it delivering the goods. It flopped.

The next album, 1971’s ‘Hunky Dory’, tapped into the vogue for the singer-songwriter, with heavy reliance on acoustic guitar and piano. Despite it containing some of his most memorably melodic gems – including ‘Changes’, ‘Oh, You Pretty Things’, and the epic ‘Life on Mars’ – this album also failed to chart upon initial release. But one song on there, the Velvet Underground-influenced adrenalin rush of ‘Queen Bitch’, pointed the way to the future. A promotional visit to the US in which he made the acquaintance of Andy Warhol and Iggy Pop fired Bowie’s imagination and he returned home brimming with ideas for a persona combining the alluring artifice of transsexual Warhol Superstars like Candy Darling with the raw power and theatrical nihilism of The Stooges. Bowie’s wife Angie was a hustler on her husband’s behalf during this crucial stage of his career and her wide circle of outré associates provoked the transformation that was the first step towards the realisation of his new persona. Scissors were taken to Bowie’s flowing locks and the jagged thatch that remained was dyed an unnatural orange. Dragging his backing band into the spotlight, Bowie then generated a group image with outfits inspired by ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The Spiders from Mars were born.

It helped that Bowie was writing new songs at a phenomenal rate. Even before the release of ‘Hunky Dory’, he and the Spiders entered the studio to record them with another album in mind. Loosely linked to form a narrative, the songs told the tale of the character Bowie envisaged as the ultimate rock icon when such figures were pop cultural Gods, Ziggy Stardust. His new image also reflected the growing resurgence of a trashy, old-school rock ‘n’ roll glamour unseen since the heyday of Billy Fury a decade before, and one that was at odds with the fashion as the 70s opened; the music scene then was all about authenticity, rejecting showbiz and looking like a hobo. However, the emergence of former hippie minstrel Marc Bolan as a major chart act in 1971 – scoring two No.1s with his band T. Rex – was another key inspiration for Bowie; Bolan’s music was deliberately primitive yet undeniably invigorating, whilst his image was of a well-groomed androgynous elf; Bolan’s breakthrough opened the floodgates for many acts who became the leading lights of Glam Rock, and for Bowie it convinced him his ingenious idea had a ready-made, hungry audience. He was right, but he also had to convince a sceptical music press.

Casually proclaiming himself bisexual in a Melody Maker interview in early 1972, Bowie sent nervous ripples throughout a music scene still wary of gender-bending despite the great leaps forward of the 60s. But it garnered the outrage, shock, horror and headlines Bowie required as he and the Spiders hit the road and began bringing their exhilarating set-list to the curious kids. The combination of this exotic alien creature quite unlike anything anyone had seen on stage before with a catalogue of riff-tastic instant rock classics was the magic recipe for success Bowie had spent a decade furtively searching for, one that the false dawn of ‘Space Oddity’ made him determined not to let slip through his fingers. None of the attention Bowie’s striking image attracted would have lasted long had he not possessed the musical mettle to back it up, however – and he did.

The release of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ exactly 50 years ago today was the foundation stone of a commercial career that lasted all the way to Bowie’s premature passing 44 years later. It became the first LP of his to chart in the UK and eventually peaked at No.5 whilst continuing to sell for decades thereafter. Its success was also aided by the single lifted from it, ‘Starman’. Having not troubled the singles charts for three years, viewers with a vague memory of a bubble-haired folkie were left open-jawed when Bowie returned to ‘Top of the Pops’ and unveiled Ziggy before an unprepared nation. As Bowie suggestively slung his arm around Mick Ronson, the shockwaves could be felt in every school playground in Britain the following day; it told many a confused kid it was chic to be a freak and gave them the confidence to follow suit. Many of them took the Bowie template and expanded it when they became glamorous chart regulars themselves a decade later.

The ‘Ziggy’ LP didn’t necessarily break new musical ground in the way Bowie went on to do, but it was a good place to start; by contributing his own intoxicating collision of high and low art to the nascent Glam scene, he enabled the Art School crew of Roxy Music, Sparks and Cockney Rebel to storm the charts and take the sound beyond the more basic appeal of Gary Glitter. Even Lou Reed managed to score a Top 10 hit courtesy of the Bowie connection, and the leper messiah also generously gave Mott the Hoople one of his pivotal numbers of the era, ‘All the Young Dudes’. With such pearls as ‘Five Years’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ and the LP’s title track, Bowie had announced his arrival in style and by the following spring, the release of the ‘Aladdin Sane’ album was heralded with an instant No.1 and a sold-out tour that saw his star in a seemingly unstoppable ascendancy.

The clever move of killing Ziggy on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973 didn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t an afterlife. Ziggy lingered for a good year or so in Bowie’s haircut and music until he finally buried him by embracing ‘Plastic Soul’ in 1975 with the release of ‘Young Americans’. But Ziggy had been Bowie’s Open Sesame to the masses and would never be forgotten either by the generation that fell in love with him first time round or all the generations to come for whom he would prove to be a stellar inspiration. Half-a-century on, it remains yet another landmark in a long-gone age overflowing with them.

© The Editor

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